Winding Refn’s Heart of Darkness inspired epic.
The Nordic mythos and aesthetic is a ripe fruit for modern media. From the recent slew of video games manipulating some aspects of the lore to Robert Eggers’ upcoming The Northman. Nicolas Winding Refn’s take is rather unique. Valhalla Rising is a 93-minute epic. A violent crusade fronted by Mads Mikkelsen in his fifth collaboration with his compatriot director. One of particular significance ‘historically’ – if you will – given that nigh-on-mute protagonists and other stylistic elements would later translate into Winding Refn’s mainstream output, most of note being Drive and Only God Forgives.
Valhalla Rising is a difficult one and has a very limited appeal, specifically to the more hardcore and dedicated of Winding Refn’s following. The film is neither an entry point nor something I found to be on par with his earlier efforts and for a multitude of reasons, though mainly in its narrative.
As a broad, narrative archetype, the Heart of Darkness approach is fairly commonplace on the big screen. It is perhaps most embodied by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. For those familiar with those titles, other’s of a similar vein or Joseph Conrad’s maiden novel, you’ll be familiar with its broad strokes. A mental descent coinciding with a journey, a trope which is evident here. Comparatively, both to the aforementioned films and practically any other title you can think of, Valhalla Rising hasn’t got much ‘on the bone’. It is very much cut and dry, a collection of thinly joined shorts charting a period in the life of fighting slave One-Eye (Mikkelsen).
This works as a double-edged sword. Whilst it plays into stylistic elements, it doesn’t make it the most enthralling watch and certainly removes a lot of accessibility and appeal for a larger demographic. For what little there is, in its fairness, the narrative is largely entertaining, especially its earlier elements which hold the most weight. Spurts of action, impeccable sound design and a high standard of cinematography, it is rather arresting before tailing off slightly as the Crusading crew are introduced. The main issue is stemming from its lack of dialogue, particularly in a “hero” sense. We’ve no singular anchor to really carry events or portray a perspective that could prove alienating and is responsible for the fall-off later on when it becomes slightly meandering and little more than travel photography porn.
Despite its concoction being a little underwhelming, the elements themselves in isolation are most definitely exceptional. Visually this is an anomaly in Refn’s filmography, the Pusher trilogy’s urban style set on the streets of Copenhagen, Drive, Fear X, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon loomed over by metropolis backdrops. The rurality of Valhalla Rising is a little of a surprise. That said, the standard doesn’t drop and Morten Søborg’s camerawork deserves a great deal of credit. A frequent collaborator of Winding Refn, the two are clearly in sync as the Scottish Highlands lends itself with ease to the director’s refined, hyperviolent style.
Valhalla Rising is easily one of the best uses of the chaptered framing device. It doesn’t ring as cheap or a crutch, and again, on the note of its overall silence, makes for an effective substitute of dialogue, moving things along quite nicely at a relatively decent pace. The variety of each chapter is impressive and contributes to its quality and smartness behind the approach. Tonally and visually, each are marked from one another to work as standalone shorts and segments of the overarching, Heart of Darkness narrative.
This is, however, a significant entry into Refn’s filmography. From the era of Bronson, it’s his establishment stage. The doors were closed on the Pusher trilogy, he’d overcome previous mainstream failure and was now affirming his style and fundamentals with such a strength that he succeeded in breaking into Hollywood on this occasion. Where its DNA is concerned, the saturated colour grading is inconsistently present, that gory action style is of course demonstrated and the mute protagonist, a staple of the Refn filmography, is at the centre. A key text in understanding the journey of a filmmaker, there is a value beyond just what it offers as an entertainment piece.
There is little wrong here, yet there is not much on offer in a broader, wider sense. It’s a turning point for Refn, and arguably Mikkelsen too. In a specific sense, Valhalla Rising is an effective action film. Its period setting makes for a unique visual outing in the action genre and I’d vouch some of its charm was also taken by Justin Kurzel into the Macbeth film of his. Far from the highlight of the Refn filmography and definitely muted in terms of it being a ‘fantasy film, Valhalla Rising is an enjoyable film and perhaps one for a rainy day though, as a point to flag up, will most certainly have most appeals to those who’d deem themselves as followers of its unique, stylish and acclaimed director.